Last year, the Ottawa Senators had two major weaknesses: Depth at center and depth in goal. The team had not been able to find a viable replacement for the recently-traded Mike Fisher, and and Alex Auld had taken eight games across almost three months to find his first win.
Robin Lehner couldn't have inspired any confidence. In eight games with the Senators in 2010-11, he owned a 3.52 GAA and a save percentage of .888. He followed that year up with a 3.26 GAA and .907 save percentage in Binghamton. The numbers were a marginal improvement over what the team was currently getting out of Auld, who would finish the year with a 3.35 GAA and a save percentage of .884. So general manager Bryan Murray traded a second-round pick for goalie Ben Bishop, and Bishop provided a steady enough body of work until an injured Craig Anderson could come back and take the reins.
Bishop would provide a similar service this year when Anderson suffered an ankle sprain. More importantly, the acquisition of Bishop appeared to spark some kind of berserker rage within Lehner, prompting him to wear jorts and work out like a madman, making a huge leap in overall performance, and giving Murray the "problem" of having three NHL-caliber goaltenders just one year removed from having merely one. Lehner's play gave the GM such confidence that he was able to trade Bishop for Cory Conacher--the mythical "top six forward" you hear Murray talk about every summer--and a fourth round pick. Conacher has been mentioned as a candidate for rookie of the year, and though he has just 4P (2G, 2A) in 10 games with the team, his presence has also created numerous scoring opportunities for his teammates, and he has generated power play opportunities for his teammates in nearly every game he's played. Meanwhile, the Senators sit with one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL this season--Anderson's save percentage of .949 leads the NHL, and if he had played enough games to officially register in the NHL's statistics, Lehner's save percentage of .936 would be second.
At center, we see similar story. The Senators drafted Mika Zibanejad 6th overall with an eye towards him occupying the second-line center position, but after 9 games with the team, it was obvious the youngster wasn't ready to carry the load, and he returned to Sweden for another year of seasoning. Center Stephane Da Costa was next, getting a hot start, but eventually returning to the Binghamton Senators. Peter Regin did a decent job in his audition, but was lost for the season with a second shoulder injury in as many years. The job fell to Nick Foligno, who had been playing as a winger on that line. Foligno did a quality job, but was obviously not a realistic long-term solution. After going through four players, Murray had seen enough, and traded David Rundblad and a 2nd round pick for disgruntled center Kyle Turris.
Turris, who had held out the entire preseason, and did not join the Phoenix Coyotes until December, had no points in six games with his former team. He promptly registered an assist in his first three games for the Senators and finished with 29P (12G, 17A) in 49 games with the Senators--setting a career high for goals, assists, and points in 16 fewer games than his previous highs.
Here's where things get interesting. Turris, as everyone knows by now, chose to spend the offseason in Ottawa training with his best friend, Patrick Wiercioch, instead of holding out. And though he missed training camp thanks to a completely pointless lockout, and would be playing with a new left winger (Foligno had been traded for defenseman Marc Methot in the offseason) conventional wisdom held that Turris would be in a good position to improve on his previous year.
Conventional wisdom held. In his first five games this season, Turris logged four goals and one assist. He was only held off the scoresheet twice--in a 3-1 win over the Florida Panthers, and a 2-1 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not counting Erik Karlsson, Turris' linemates accumulated 4 points--all assists--during that stretch. This was a pace that would have obliterated his previous season.
Why was it possible? In a word: Matchups. Despite playing three of those five games at home, Turris' line frequently got the matchups head coach Paul MacLean wanted, because the top line of Milan Michalek, Jason Spezza, and Jakob Silvferberg drew so much attention. Turris was free to put his offseason training to work against opponents that gave him more space, and he now had the skills to make better use of that space.
Of course, after that fifth game, Spezza was lost to a back injury that required surgery and Turris was moved up to fill his spot. Suddenly, he wouldn't enjoy the same space that he did before, but in the first eight games, he registered five assists. In fact, Turris now has 26P (10G, 16A) in 43 games, putting him almost exactly on the same pace for points as he had in 49 games last year. Though Turris has gone on extended goalless streaks this year, from a points perspective, we're essentially seeing the same production against better competition--a promising sign for his future when Spezza returns.
And then there's Zibanejad. After his 9-game audition, he returned to Sweden, where the team wasn't happy with how he was used. When his season ended there, he came back to North America to play with Binghamton, but was concussed and didn't get to play. He suffered through injuries again this year, making him an afterthought while other teammates like Silfverberg began the season with the big club once the meaningless lockout ended. When he finally got healthy, he was called up--as a winger.
While Zibanejad enjoyed some success in that position, it was when he began centering Guillaume Latendresse and Jakob Silfverberg that he really began to turn heads. Playing similar minutes as Turris had (Zibanejad was averaging 13:25 TOI going into Thursday's game with Washington, while Turris averaged 16:51 last season) with better linemates--Zibanejad got post-migraine Latendresse and speedtank Conacher--Zibanejad is scoring .56 points per game this year; Turris' pace at the position last year was .59 points per game. (It should be noted that I did not attempt to separate Zibanejad's wing/center production and this may result in a slightly lower average.)
What's the takeaway here? Simple, really: The plum position on this team is at second line center. An influx of young scoring talent means you get quality teammates, and a dangerous first line means you get all of the favorable matchhups you could hope for. We know that both Zibanejad and Turris have room for improvement--Zibanejad is just 20 years old, and Turris was off to a torrid start this season with weaker linemates--but if we simply average their production so far, the minimum production we can expect from the position in any given year would be 48 points in a full season.
That, in and of itself, though, also presents a problem. When Jason Spezza returns to health, the Senators will have a top line center position filled and a second line center position filled, and a center left over. While they could just try to trade him for another Calder Trophy candidate, that's not really ideal. The real question is whether that player is moved to wing to continue earning top-six minutes, or move him to the third line.
What would that look like? Let's assume Spezza returns for the playoffs, and let's move Zibanejad around, since he's already seen playing time on the wing. If the move is to wing, your top six would look like this:
That's some good, maybe even great, talent--but it also strands top-six forward Conacher on what amounts to a checking third line with Zack Smith centering it. That's probably not why Murrray traded for him. What happens if you try to create a third scoring line with Zibanejad as its center?
We've created a new problem for ourselves--Erik Condra isn't exactly a scoring forward, and he and Latendresse are downgrades from Zibanejad's current wingers. So, the Senators have more top-six forwards than they can fit in the top six, but not enough of them to create a true third scoring line.
This becomes less of an issue next year, and we'll look at roster moves in the offseason, but for now, whomever moves to the third line gets shortchanged. So, who should it be?
Smart money has to be on Zibanejad. He has the size advantage over Turris and has 42 more hits in 6 fewer games, so should that line be called on to perform more of a checking role, Zibanejad is more suited to fill that need. In addition, Zibanejad's TOI is already more reminiscent of what Z. Smith--last year's primary third-line center--played on a night: 14:04. It's reasonable to assume Zibanejad would do well in even more favorable matchups against weaker competition while getting the same amount of minutes he's getting on the second line despite the talent downgrade he also has to cope with.
Ultimately, it's a good problem for MacLean to have. He's got two good options to center his lines, and a very realistic chance of creating three scoring lines as early as next year. Should his first choice for the spot falter, he's got someone he can plug in without any noticeable dropoff in production. Most importantly, whoever winds up in that spot is going to be in a position to have the biggest impact on the team, and if past history is any indication, they probably will.